Spring Training took center stage this week, with the Mets and Yankees among the teams preparing themselves for the 2011 season by playing make-believe games in make-believe leagues named after grapefruits and cacti. In addition, the Knicks and Rangers kept their playoff hopes alive, but not all that convincingly. Here's the week that was and the week that will be.
Mets: Carlos Beltran decided to make it official early this season and told Terry Collins he feels he'd be better off in right field. Better yet, he actually played in a game, singled in his first at-bat, then scored from second on Daniel Murphy's two-out hit, rounding the bases to the sound of several thousand fans holding their breath. Beltran scored on a feet-first slide, and bounced right back up as if to say, "What? Why does everyone look so worried?" It's been so long now since the Mets had the services of a healthy Carlos Beltran, one almost forgets how nice it would be if the team could actually play with his potent bat in the middle of their lineup. Might be wise to keep "Beltran, knee" on the ready in your Google Alerts.
Yankees: The Yankees got a big outing from handsome Bartolo Colon this week, who breezed effortlessly and gorgeously through three shutout innings, registering five strikeouts in the process. Sunday saw the first preseason home run from Alex Rodriguez who has looked healthy and prepared so far this Spring Training, suggesting that perhaps another monster season remains in that big right-handed bat. They will need him, as the Yankees will head into 2011 as the AL East's underdogs. Yes, the Yanks will use that tried and true underdog formula, fielding a team of plucky, over-achievers hell bent on making the most of their minimal talent. Think of them as a highly paid version of the Bad News Bears.
Monday, March 7
7:30PM NBA New York vs. Utah
Tuesday, March 8
12:00 PM NCAAB UConn vs. DePaul
2:00 PM NCAAB Seton Hall vs. South Florida
7:00 PM NCAAB Villanova vs. DePaul
9:00 PM NCAAB Marquette vs. Providence
7:00 PM NHL NY Islanders vs. Toronto
7:00 PM NHL New Jersey vs. Ottawa
Wednesday, March 9
12:00 PM NCAAB Georgetown vs. TBD
2:00 PM NCAAB St. John's vs. TBD
7:00 PM NCAAB Cincinnati vs. TBD
9:00 PM NCAAB West Virginia vs. TBD
7:00 PM NBA New Jersey vs. Golden State
8:00 PM NBA NY Knicks at Memphis
10:00 PM NHL NY Rangers at Anaheim
Thursday, March 10
12:00 PM NCAAB Pittsburgh vs. TBD
2:00 PM NCAAB Syracuse vs. TBD
7:00 PM NCAAB Notre Dame vs. TBD
9:00 PM NCAAB Louisville vs. TBD
9:30PM NBA NY Knicks at Dallas
Friday, March 11
7:00 PM NBA New Jersey vs. LA Clippers
7:00 PM NHL NY Islanders vs. Boston
7:30 PM NHL New Jersey at Atlanta
Saturday, March 12
7:00 PM NHL New Jersey vs. NY Islanders
10:30 PM NHL NY Rangers at San Jose
Sunday, March 13
6:00 PM NBA New York vs. Indiana
Knicks: The Knicks would be playing really well if only they could beat the Cavs, those mighty Cleveland Cavaliers. The Knicks have lost to Cleveland twice since their blockbuster acquisition, but don't let the Cavs' 12-49 record fool you. They stink. The Carmelo Anthony era continues to be an adjustment, particularly to the expectations. Since making their big ticket trade the Knicks have lost to Cleveland twice, yet knocked off the Heat in Miami and crushed New Orleans at MSG. More encouraging was their bounce-back win Sunday in Atlanta, where they wore down the Hawks with, of all things, defense. Curiously, the Knicks took command in the fourth quarter with Carmelo Anthony on the bench, but for the time being, we'll largely chalk that up to coincidence until forced otherwise. The Knicks will look forward to a matchup with Utah at home, before visits to Memphis and Dallas, but should be bolstered by the return of Chauncey Billups from a deep thigh bruise, an injury description that probably doesn't do justice to the feeling of getting drilled in the thigh by Dwight Howard's bionic knee.
Nets: In an effort to expand their brand abroad, the NBA played its first regular season games in Europe, making sure to send the Brits two of the league's most electrifying attractions: the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors. Yes, if after watching two games of Nets/Raptors one is still not an NBA convert, well, then it just wasn't meant to be. That being said, the two teams did put on quite the show, particularly on Saturday where they battled over three overtimes before the Nets finally pulled out a 137-136 victory. Deron Williams -- not surprisingly -- was the star, dishing out 29 assists over the two games much to the delight of the London crowd who were just happy to have something to take their mind off of losing to the Irish in cricket... the bloody Irish!
Rangers: The Rangers' week had seemed destined to be one filled with sadness and panic before the weekend took a decidedly more positive turn. A 4-1 win in Ottawa was followed by a 7-0 destruction of the Philadelphia Flyers on national television. Ryan Callahan played a nice little game, scoring four goals and adding an assist for good measure. It was an important win for New York who was in jeopardy of losing their grip on a playoff spot with a tough trip to Anaheim and San Jose looming. The Rangers have made a habit of sneaking into the playoffs in the 7th or 8th spot in the standings. But this year is a bit different, in past years that result has felt largely disappointing given the expectations, but with this year's young, resilient roster a playoff berth may be the start of something much bigger.
Devils: The Devils are making a serious run in the season's second half. Like a crazy-can't-lose kind of run. At one point, the notion of the Devils in this year's playoffs would have been met by either smirks, whimpers or shrugs of indifference. But after a scorching stretch that includes their current four-game winning streak, the Devils find themselves only seven points from the final playoff berth. The key has been Ilya Kovalchuk, who has been so impressive no one is still questioning why the Devils were so desperate to get him signed this offseason. How good has Kovalchuk been? Here's a sampling of the latest Devils headlines from the AP: "Kovalchuk's goal gives Devils 6th straight win," "Kovalchuk nets winner again for Devils," "Kovalchuk's power-play goal gives Devils OT win," "Kovalchuk scores late, solves murder, donates kidney." I only made one of those up.
Islanders: The Islanders may not generate a ton of headlines around here, but they are a pretty exciting young team. And despite the fact their playoff chances are mostly non-existent, the Islanders young core of Tavares, Grabner and Okposo portends of good things to come in the not so distant future. The Islanders were having a brilliant week after a 4-1 win over Minnesota and a 5-2 spanking that gave St. Louis the blues. Get it? It's a pun. Anyway, the tide turned slightly with a disappointing shootout loss to New Jersey, 3-2. But despite the defeat, the Islanders have fought valiantly over the second half of the season and proven themselves as a team who very well may be on the rise. Or they might just keep on being the Islanders.
Big East basketball: The Big East tournament field is set, which means there are roughly 12 teams with a fairly legitimate chance of taking home the Big East crown. But the regular season title has been decided. No. 4 Pittsburgh wrapped up that prestigious honor this past week with a 60-50 win over Villanova. Villanova joins Connecticut as two talented teams, whose seasons have quickly taken a turn for the worse. The Wildcats have now lost four straight, while the Huskies have lost four of five. The tournament begins this Tuesday and should be tremendous, as long as you are into highly competitive, well-played college basketball.